Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

Tackling the Tough Questions


Scripture reading: Romans 9:1-18.

Sermon text: Romans 9:19-33.

I loved school, but until high school, I always dreaded recess and PE. (I found a chess club in high school, making recess, at least, more enjoyable.) As the smallest boy in the class, I never excelled in sports. I knew that in any game involving team play, someone else would always choose the teams, and regardless of who the teachers chose as team leader — even if they chose my best friend — no one would ever choose me. Regardless of how hard I worked at home to improve, regardless of the game we chose to play, I was always the last player chosen.

Choice: Humanity’s most potent power. We choose our careers; we choose our spouses; we make choices on a daily basis that often change our lives. As Genesis 3 reminds us, our choices sometimes change history.

As we’ve examined St. Paul’s letter to the Roman church, we’ve witnessed the consequences of choice. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God in the Garden, bringing sin and death into our existence. Adam’s descendants quickly chose to continue in that disobedience and deepen it by choosing intentionally to worship false gods. God chose Noah and spared his family from a flood. God then chose Abraham and commanded him to leave all he knew in Ur and travel to a land God had chosen to give him. Then, out of Abraham’s descendants, God chose the descendants of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, to form the nation of Israel, the nation He would call to serve as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Israel, unfortunately, chose otherwise, leading to the near destruction of the nation.

However, in a time of His choosing, God sent His only begotten son, Jesus, who fulfilled the covenant Israel failed to keep. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus steeled Himself and chose to fulfill the plan that, while requiring His crucifixion, brought the opportunity for salvation to fallen humanity. Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit came into the world and began transforming everyone who would confess Jesus as Lord of their lives, believing in His resurrection.

The power of choice also posed a dilemma in St. Paul’s argument in Romans. God had chosen Israel as His instrument for demonstrating His mercy to other nations. Yet, most Jews in St. Paul’s time failed to believe in Jesus, even though an examination of the Old Testament proved He had fulfilled every prophecy alluding to the promised messiah of Israel. If God had chosen certain people for salvation, as St. Paul declared in Romans 8, why didn’t the Jewish nation — God’s chosen nation and the most logical choice for national salvation — accept Jesus as Lord?

St. Paul began his explanation for this failure in chapter 9. In the next 3 chapters, St. Paul expanded on his statements regarding God’s choice in salvation.

Before I go any further, I must inform you that the next 3 chapters of Romans have led to more controversy and debates than nearly any other passage in Scripture. The Church has consistently held that God foreknows all events in humanity’s existence. However, the extent of God’s foreordination of human affairs has remained in question. Many groups in the Western Church, building primarily on the teachings of St. Augustine, have often taken this debate to its logical conclusion and used this passage to teach that God creates some humans solely for eternal condemnation. Other parts of the Western Church have remained in the tradition of the Greek Fathers and emphasized human choice in salvation.

You’ll find nothing new here. Anyone wishing to understand the debate can find more literature than I can list in any bibliography. Since this sermon involves only chapter 9, I’ll remain firmly in the chapter for this sermon. This sermon involves only 1 chapter and takes the chapter at face value: God ordains the affairs of human nations for His purposes.

St. Paul opened this chapter by directly confronting the key question: Will God abandon the Jews because of their rejection of Jesus as their Lord? In “great sorrow and unceasing anguish,” St. Paul confessed, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” St. Paul would have willingly given his own eternal salvation to achieve the salvation of his people.

Many Gentiles had begun to wonder about God’s covenant and promises to the Jews. Did the Jews’ rejection of Jesus lead God to reject Israel and turn instead to the Gentiles? St. Paul reminded the Gentile believers of Rome, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” God had used Israel as the instrument through which His son, Jesus, had come into the world. The Virgin Mary, who conceived by the Holy Spirit, was a member of the tribe of Judah and the family of David, Israel’s greatest king.

St. Paul reminded the Romans, “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’” God had promised Abraham that his descendants would bless the world. Did this mean all of Abraham’s descendants would bless humanity? Not in the way of Isaac’s descendants, it seems. Abraham’s son Ishmael gave birth to the Arab nation. In the medieval times, the Arabs wiped Christianity out of large parts of Christendom, but they also preserved much of humanity’s learning. Other sons were the ancestors of other nations, one of which (Midian) served to protect Moses from the wrath of Pharaoh Thutmose III.

Isaac fathered twin sons by Rebecca: Jacob and Esau. Before their birth, God had told Rebecca, “The older will serve the younger.” God had decided this before the twins’ birth, “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call.”

Here we come to one of the most misused verses in Scripture: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Did God say this before the birth of Jacob and Esau? The book of Genesis records that Esau did want to kill Jacob at one point in their lives, but the brothers later reconciled. Esau grew into an impulsive, short-tempered man with little regard for long-term planning, but Scripture also heavily implies that he died in faith with God.

Unfortunately, Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, later oppressed Israel, especially during the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. This oppression led to the statement by God above, but not until c. 450 B.C. through the prophet Malachi (Malachi 1:3). In other words, God declared this judgment on “Esau” — on the nation of Edom — in response to their oppression of their kin. This was a national judgment, not a judgment on the individual Esau. “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” God rightfully judged the Edomites for their sin.

Instead, God had told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  So many people look on God as a wrathful God who constantly looks for an opportunity to judge someone. Scripture demonstrates that God instead looks for opportunities to show mercy. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

This leads to the next example : The Pharaoh of the Exodus. St. Paul reminded the Romans, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”

Any examination of Egyptian history would clearly demonstrate the reasons for this statement. In Egyptian religion, every Pharaoh was seen as an incarnation of the god Horus. Pharaoh owned all the land in Egypt and ruled absolutely with no restraints other than custom on his power. The Pharaoh of the Exodus, Amenhotep II (not Ramses II), inherited a great kingdom from his father. All this power explains the arrogance we read in Exodus when Moses gave him the word of the LORD: “‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22-23). God had plenty of material with which to work in Pharaoh; actually, God had only to withhold mercy from Amenhotep II, and he willingly did the rest. The result wrecked Egypt and demonstrated God’s power to other nations. (Read Exodus through Joshua for details.)

St. Paul then used another example from the Old Testament to answer a key objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” In other words, if God chooses to harden someone, how can that person be responsible for their demise? Reaching into the book of Jeremiah, St. Paul used the story of the potter (Jeremiah 18):

  1. But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

This passage reminds us again of several points. First, as our Creator, God has the right to decree what He wills. However, it also reminds us that God often withholds His judgment if doing so gives Him another opportunity to show mercy. In the case of Israel, St. Paul arrived at the important point for this letter: God has decided to use Israel’s stubbornness to show His mercy to the Gentiles.

“As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” The Gentiles — once those who were not God’s people — now heard themselves called God’s “people” and His “beloved.” Even better, the Gentiles now heard themselves called “sons of the living God,” a title once reserved solely for David’s descendants who ruled from Jerusalem.

As for Israel, St. Paul reminded the Jews that most of their ancestors had rejected the covenant and rightfully deserved judgment. However, God had always promised that a “remnant” would survive and remain faithful to the covenant. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, St. Paul told his readers, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” God’s righteousness — His faithfulness to the covenant — required Him to judge Israel when the nation broke the covenant. However, God left “offspring” to Israel to insure the nation’s survival.

Even the remnant of Israel who remained faithful to the covenant finally failed their obligation to God. Instead, the Israel “who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.” By the time of St. Paul, most Jews followed the law because they believed it alone would bring them the salvation they desired: “They did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” The law of Moses could never have resulted in salvation unless followed by faith. As St. Paul had definitively proved, no one could wholly keep the Mosaic Law. Only Jesus kept the covenant completely and faithfully.

This posed the key problem for Israel: “They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’” Jesus fulfilled the covenant to remove the necessity of keeping the covenant. Unfortunately, most Jews of St. Paul’s time refused to admit they needed Jesus’ sacrifice to attain salvation. Most Jews in the first century A.D. and beyond have insisted on trying to attain salvation in other ways. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

This proves a key point for understanding this chapter and especially for understanding chapter 10 next week: While God has chosen nations for His purposes, He has always given individuals the opportunity to believe in His promises and receive those promises by faith. We’ll learn more about this next week.

Meanwhile, the lessons of this chapter continues to hold true today.

First, we need to realize that while God has chosen people throughout history, His choice has always expanded His opportunity to show grace and mercy to fallen humanity. We cannot allow anyone, no matter how influential or how eloquent, to overshadow this fact. God chose Abraham to show His grace to the nations. God chose Israel to serve as an example to the nations. God has chosen the Church in our time to take the gospel of Jesus Christ — the story of His death and resurrection — to our families, to our communities, and to the world.

We also must notice that every time God chooses someone, the choice brings great responsibility. Israel failed to live up to their responsibility to live as a holy nation. When God chooses us for a purpose in our congregation, we must see this as an opportunity to serve our congregation and to serve our community. We cannot fail to fulfill our calling to serve.

We cannot ignore another lesson here. So many people today will ask, “What must I do to be saved? Tell me what works I must perform.” If anyone could work their way to salvation and eternal life, the Jews would have accomplished it in the first century A.D. as they rigorously adhered to the Mosaic Law. They learned to their dismay that works of the law could never bring salvation. Only faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could bring salvation.

As for you, I have great news. Unlike those times in school when so many of us found ourselves unchosen by either team and only reluctantly accepted by the last team to choose, God has chosen to offer us the opportunity to join His team — His Church — to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to others who need to hear it. God calls us to live as the kingdom of priests and holy nation that Israel failed to uphold. When you sense God calling you, confess Jesus as Lord of your life, believing in His resurrection. You’ll learn then that God has chosen to give you the opportunity of eternity: The opportunity to join the winning team led by His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.